Sunday, November 5, 2017

Paganism Has a Creepy Guy Problem

Paganism has a creepy guy problem….and we need to face and address it.  This is a call for looking in the mirror and then having productive conversations.  So, let me talk about what I see, how I understand it, and also my hope.

First, I should be clear that I am talking about men in the Pagan community who are attracted to women.  I don’t know if this situation is also present in men who are attracted to men.  Even if so, it is likely that the dynamics are a bit different.

I believe that Paganism, writ large, is an audacious project…one in which we are establishing the nascent foundations of alternative cultures that are meant to challenge the dominant culture in which we are embedded.  We are striving to re-enchant the world.  We are trying to create ways of living that build positive, caring and meaningful relationships with beings who are non-human (including invisible/spirit beings) and all of the natural world.  We are creating traditions and structures that encourage the development of human potential at all levels of being and inculcating an orientation that holds all aspects of human nature as having sacred value.  We are developing alternatives to the dominant culture that challenge not only gender roles, but the valuation of those roles.  We want to create alternative cultures in which human beings can embrace and develop their full natures and thrive. 

Paganism provides a strong corrective to values in the dominant culture that simultaneously cast sexuality as something morally negative and use a “market” approach to sexuality that leads to objectification of humans, especially (but not exclusively) women.  Paganism has an extraordinary degree of sexual openness.  Within Pagan circles, there is a high level of acceptance of LGBTQ members of the community.  A broad range of sexual orientations and practices are accepted and celebrated as part of human experience.  If it is safe, sane, and between consenting adults, Pagans are generally fine with almost anything.  Female sexuality is fully accepted as a valuable part of human experience and women are supported in claiming and developing their sexuality in a positive way.  Given the misogyny of the dominant culture, this is revolutionary.  In general, Pagans have a strong desire to be sex-positive.

Here’s the bad.  Sexual permissiveness is not inherently sex-positive.  Sexual positivity, at its foundation, requires full consent of all partners.  Any form of coercion is antithetical.  While it is critically important that Pagan women can be fully sexual beings, this can morph into an expectation that they are always going to be sexual.  There seems to be an expectation on the part of some Pagan men that Pagan women are always open to being hit on.  This is a huge problem.  I cannot even count the number of Pagan women who have complained to me about unwanted sexual attention to the point of relentlessness.  And it isn’t just at parties.  Sex is appropriately seen as sacred, but this belief can morph into obnoxious to oppressive behavior when every moment and every context is seen as an opportunity to hit on women. 

Now, there are bad guys who I suspect are drawn to Paganism because they can get away with things in their constant prospecting for women in Pagan circles that they can’t get away with in the dominant culture.  These are the ones who know full well that their attention is unwanted and are doing it anyway.  These people need to be shamed and shunned.  If they’ve been called out and continue, they are not unaware.  But getting rid of these blights would not fix the problem.  I think that a good portion of the instances that I hear about are from men who would be horrified if they understood that their behavior was creeping/freaking women out.

I think a significant root of the problem is that they are not understanding the experiences of women or what we are bringing with us into our interactions in the Pagan community.  First, as the #MeToo campaign made glaringly apparent, there are barely any women in this culture who HAVE NOT been sexually assaulted and/or harassed.  That is part of our lived experience.  For pretty much any woman you are dealing with, you can expect that she has memories of gendered/sexual violence that make up part of her psyche.  Secondly, no matter how “nice” a guy you think you are, all Pagan women are embedded in the dominant culture also and what we know with absolute certainty is that we are all in far more danger from men we know than from strangers.  Violence against women is an epidemic….virtually all of us experience it and we all have mechanisms of trying to protect ourselves. 

So, our histories and our experiences teach virtually all women several things.  Women are in danger from men.  That is not an exaggeration--that is real.  I think most Pagan men want to change that.  Good.  We need your help.  Secondly, much like the most dangerous time for the victim of domestic violence is the moment an abuser realizes his/her victim is going to leave, the most dangerous moment for any woman is when the man who is hitting on her realizes she is not going to have sex with him.  That is when, as a woman, your risk of being assaulted sky-rockets.  It means that for most of us when you are hit on and not interested, it is a fraught exchange and this anxiety is often invisible to men. 

What does that mean?  There are a bunch of tactics that most women know and use to lessen that risk…most of which have to do with indirect ways of communicating a lack of interest/consent.  We try to keep things kind of superficial and flirtatious and avoid having them advance to a real proposition, sometimes by trying to get a third party present or involved.  We try to disentangle without having to directly say “no” to somebody because it is often fraught and frightening to get to the point where you have to be that direct.  (I know some women don't have anxiety being that direct, but many do).  One of the most time-honored and effective but nauseatingly oppressive methods is to assert that you “belong” to some other man (my husband, my boyfriend, see my wedding ring) because it is a proven fact that men will respect the property-rights of other men more than they will respect the autonomy, sovereignty and basic human rights of a woman.  (Just typing this sentence and knowing it is true almost made me vomit and cry simultaneously).  It also means that we psychologically rely on some of the divisions about when we expect to be in contexts where we may be hit on (like at a party or a bar, or going out to dinner with someone), and when we do not expect to be hit on (like at work, or in the grocery, or walking down the street, or in a class on divination, or getting ready for a ritual).  When we are suddenly put in a position where we are dealing with sexual advances in contexts for which we are not prepared, that is often disturbing if not frightening. 

So, suddenly, in a Pagan context, all of the indirect ways of communicating fail.  Even the time honored “I have a boyfriend” doesn’t work because the acceptance of polyamory frequently morphs into an expectation that the woman might be into it.  The expectation is that a woman who is not interested should just say “no,” but that doesn’t take into account all of our experiences, not just in the past, but as soon as we walk out of Pagan spaces.  It doesn’t take into account how much that really requires of many women and the anxiety-load it creates.  And for people who think that it is only men in the dominant culture who react badly and get scary when a woman doesn’t want to have sex with them…dream on.  I’ve seen it.  Additionally, there is not as clear a division about when it is and is not appropriate to hit on somebody, which also increases the anxiety load.  Plus, what many men, including many Pagan men, never seem to understand is the extreme cognitive dissonance that many women live with in which it is flattering to be told that you are attractive and also terrifying…in the same moment.  This is especially important when you consider how the dominant culture trains us to believe that our value is dependent upon being attractive to the same population who will use that attractiveness as an excuse to degrade and assault us.  That’s just a part of the lived reality of being female in this culture.

I believe that most Pagan men don’t want this for any women, especially for their Pagan sisters.  I believe that they, far more than most men, want to see the patriarchy overturned and an end to misogyny.  I think most Pagan men are aware that women are suffering and don’t want that.  I don’t have answers, but I hope that we can have some real conversations that are not about blame, but are about finding ways we can turn Pagan culture into a truly sex-positive culture and maybe provide models beyond ourselves.  Here are some ideas for future thinking.

1.  We need to kill out language and thought patterns of rejection.  The language of rejection suggests that if someone does not want to have sex with you, it is because you are less valuable and in some way it hurts you.  Instead, the default expectation should be that people do not want to have sex with you and if they do, it is because they want to share something with you.   It is easy to say this, but it is harder, in the moment, to stand strong in your center.  As Pagans, I think we need to build and strengthen the understanding that the worth of each human being is not conditional and that we are strong in our center and self-worth.  [As a related project, I think we need to be developing models of intimate relationships that are not erotic because if you are ONLY intimate with people you are sexually involved with, then there is no way to address the issue of feeling like a lack of sexual interest is a rejection of your worth].   

    2.  We need to set up some contextual understandings about when it is and is not appropriate to be hitting on each other.  Much like the Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson exercise for the workplace (imagine you are talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and treat your female colleague like you would him) we need to set up some shared understanding about what behavior is appropriate when. 
3.  We need to find ways to make it safe for people to express desire and facilitate hooking up, but in ways that don’t require women to use behaviors that are potentially dangerous.  Again, putting women in situations where they have to say “no” is potentially threatening.  It also doesn’t take into account a common adrenaline response, which is to freeze.  Not saying “no” is never the same thing as saying “yes.”  I think we need to have some conversations about how we can get assent in ways that are not threatening…especially in situations in which people are likely to remain in community with each other.

EDITED TO ADD:  Based on comments in the Facebook feeds, I want to make a couple of clarifying points.  First, I am not saying that women are not also sometimes creepy...but I am not assuming that the dynamic would be the same, so that is not my topic.  Out of scope is not the same the same thing as denying it occurs.  Point two is similar.  Yes, the world has a creepy guy problem.  Many other contexts have a creepy people problem.  I am Pagan.  I am interested in having the conversations about  how to make the interactions between men and women in Paganism healthier for all parties.  Point three...if your comment in any way resembles, "Not me!  I am shy and afraid of being humiliated!  How DARE you talk about this!  Violence against women is overblown!  What do you mean by creepy any way, feminist."  Your answer...creepy. And I'm not sure you aren't a Russian bot anyway.

In the interest of trying to move things along in a more productive vein.  If any women are willing to put some ideas in the comments.  What would a GOOD exchange look like if a guy was hitting on you and you were not interested?  What would feel safe that does not require the guy to be a full-blown telepath?  


Gwendolyn said...

NOTE: This post is a call to talking about the issues and trying to foster problem-solving conversations (e.g. what does a process of gaining assent in a nonthreatening way look like?) I will NOT permit any personally identifying comments about specific individuals here. That needs to happen in a different forum.

Sarah Lyn said...

Thank you for this post! It is something I also think about. We have a lot of young pagan men in our community trying to unravel the permissive culture and you were able to describe the experience I hear from a lot of pagan women. That is so important to be able to share what is happening from the other side of things.

I know a lot of men are taught not to give up on what they want and/or that women are conquests to be trophied. So we have to find ways of being able to say, "Yo, back off. Now it's creepy." I could do it now. But not before a couple years ago. I always froze. But it's happened to me in the pagan world. Nothing like being at your first ritual and having a guy kiss your neck and then ask you if it was all right.

Jeff Minnich said...

Speaking as a Gay man, I will say that my [limited] contact with other Gay male Pagans has been respectful and friendly, and not what I would consider "out-of-line", at all. That has been my experience.

Thanks for this post.

Lailoken Scathach said...

I believe this advice extends to all orientations not just straight men as emphasized in this article. One of my first experiences of a Meetup in SF was a drunk woman who was very clingy and sexually intrusive, despite my clear signals to leave me alone and moving away from her multiple times she still pursued me, it became so bad that I had to leave the event.

Granted this was one experience and I not the norm, it does give pause to rethink why people attend these events, is it to meet and grow a Pagan circle of friends or for a quick "pick-up".

I also find myself moving away from the Pagan community because of the growing anti-white male language that is permeating some circles.

Good advice, but it extends further then just men - we should make all people feel welcome regardless of sex, gender, race, or tradition.

Gwendolyn said...

Thank you for sharing your experience. I wanted to get the conversation started based on the instances that have been reported to me that I knew I could speak to, but I want us to have a general conversation around what it would really take to address these issues.

Anonymous said...
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RPGMendrol said...
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Rita said...

This is especially complicated in skyclad situations. While we are trying to establish that nudity does not always equal sex, that nudity is about acceptance, rejection of Christian standards, equality before the gods or a number of other ideas, we come to the situation with our societal programming that says you only get naked in mixed company if looking for sex. Add to that the idea of "perfect love and perfect trust" making it seem an actual violation of one's religious ideals to be openly rejecting and the problem becomes more fraught.

I have noticed that some large gatherings have started using hug/no hug stickers on name tags to help people set boundaries. This is helpful, though not a full solution.

Anonymous said...

It is my experience that most of those males and females (yes women behave badly too and sometimes are even more heinous) who continue to behave sexually inappropriately in Pagan circles do so because they hold a belief that all Pagans actively participate in sexual hedonism and that satisfying their hedonistic curiosities and desires comes before anything else including your gods, family, or self-respect. I applaud your article and wish you would consider being a keynote speaker at the 2018 PPD in Raleigh, NC because this is definitely a topic that needs addressed in mass. Maybe you could have them invite you or at least read this very insightful article at morning ceremonies? I can tell you that several families have had pre-teen children traumatized by adult advances under the guise of 'they look old enough', numerous adults that have unwanted attention from both same and opposite sex turn into horrifying experiences once they were caught alone by the person after sunset, and the list goes on.

Samuel Wagar said...

I'm quite sure that there have been times when I've been that "creepy guy". I know there have been times when I've gone to festivals with part of my intention being that I'd get laid (sometimes it has happened, sometimes not), although my interactions with women at events are not principally centred on my dick, at least I hope not.

Having a sex-positive and body-positive community means different things to women than men (from what I have been told by women friends), although there is an overlap. And negotiating our way out of the power differential of the broader culture isn't smooth and easy. I would rather that we kept trying, and didn't decide that a Puritanical reaction (no skyclad work, no sexual symbolism, and continued slut-shaming and body-shaming) was 'safer'. It isn't, and it reduces the autonomy of women.

A conversation we need to keep having.

Anonymous said...

what exactly constitutes a creepy person ,what are the defined actions. Are these actions universal? I think these are individual reactions for each person. it is easy to label some one creepy if you don't find them physically attractive and they are showing interest in you. which is often the case. also many people are inherently socially awkward and may find it hard to communicate with others. why doesn't someone just come up with a glyph or sigil system for the pagan community that helps others to identify what they are, if at all sexually open to. I know that this line of thinking will spark the " I don't like Labels" argument so think of this not all labels are bad, they are there to help us, i.e. caution wet floor think of them as a road sign on your journey.

M Dadtka said...

I was talking to a woman about dating. She said that men are so afraid of being politically correct they don't know how to ask a woman out properly. I am not sure to what she was referring to, but it seems to me that this conversation needs to be had in all facets of our lives. Mysogyny is here. But if we struggle for equality we must struggle for freedom from fear of abuse. Having said that, I will say to the men, no means no, at any time

RPGMendrol said...

So much for "starting a dialogue." - my comment has been deleted.

Gwendolyn said...

Yeah...I was trying to figure out how to do something...namely turn it off for people who don't have their comments linked to a confirmable identity. Didn't work quite right.